The town of Georgia has 89 miles of public road. People walk, run and drive across them every day. But what happens when years go by, transportation evolves, the town shifts in shape and size, and roads slip out of regular use?
According to a law passed in 2006, roads that don’t appear on town highway maps but were once created by a proper legal process fall under a new category called unidentified corridors, or colloquially, ancient roads.
When the law charged municipalities with officially mapping all town highways or trails by 2015, the Georgia Selectboard sent out a query: Where are our ancient roads, and who can find them?
About 10 people heeded the call, but before the group made it through the very first ancient road – today’s Polly Hubbard Road – eight gave up.
Two were left standing to scour 250 years of historical documents and town records: Patrick Burke and Tony Heinlein, Georgia residents since 2006 and 1975, respectively.
Burke is a real estate paralegal, well versed in title searches, land deeds and legislation. Heinlein sits on the Georgia Planning Commission.
For the next seven years, the pair forged ahead with their formidable task to identify and map all of Georgia’s roads. They recently accomplished this feat, and now the town is faced with another ancient roads question:
What do we do with them?
A daunting assignment
Burke and Heinlein are first to admit their work was tedious and exacting.
They sometimes spent up to three hours deciphering one road, pouring through town proceedings dating back to Georgia’s establishment in 1763 to find anything pertinent, which could be one line in an entire book.
Heinlein and Burke unraveled timeworn documents like riddles, written in old English script and referring to ambiguous (and often now-defunct) landmarks.
“These are public assets; they belong to all of us.”
— Patrick Burke
Take, for instance, a recording for today’s Polly Hubbard Road, dated July 27, 1789: “Began to lay out a highway beginning 200 rods south of a white oak tree standing near the lakeshore on the westernmost end of lot [number] 105 marked H for highway … ”
“They have this kind of oracular way of saying things,” Burke said. “That tree is gone.”
The pair mapped it out using directions drafted more than two centuries ago, instructing them to “run south 48 chains then east 17 chains then south 56 chains” and so on, until something resembling a road appeared on their acetate paper.
Working with a local engineering firm, they cut around the line they drew and laid a transparency over a town map from 1806. If it matched up, they had a fit – and hundreds more to go before they could rest.
“It wasn’t so easy as to open a book and say, this is a current road, this is an ancient road,” Heinlein said. “We had to plot everything out and then sort out what doesn’t match with today’s roads, and if there’s no evidence of it there, then that is an ancient road.”
Sometimes, they held original road surveys in their hands, and the impact was not lost on them.
“That’s 200-year-old paper,” Burke said, noting those antique documents are now preserved in a vault, waiting to be indexed – the duo’s next project.
As the years passed, the men began to understand and trust the work of Georgia’s forebears.
“I had confidence,” Burke said. “Even though it didn’t follow today’s road or something was funky, it just meant I had something else to research.”
Even so, they occasionally ran into errors. Their ability to spot them was a testament to their expertise.
Heinlein recalled a road plotted with two different lengths – one from town records, and another from the original survey he later unearthed. He meticulously compared the surveys, finally spotting an error. After correcting the inaccuracy, the road was a perfect fit.
“These guys probably recorded this stuff after they did all their field work or whatever they did in daylight, and this was probably their evening job in candlelight,” Heinlein said.
In digging through hundreds of years of records, Heinlein and Burke inevitably uncovered bits of town history, and centuries later, the tales of a bygone era are quaint. The men speak of an abandoned ferry, bounties for town residents who would join the Union Army and the frenzy of the railroad’s arrival in town.
Burke and Heinlein also found some roads running south to north were wider than normal. Even after the Revolution, the Quebec border was still shaky territory, and the pair believes they were intended for troops’ and supplies’ easy passage, should a battle erupt on Vermont soil.
They discovered much of the town’s history is visible through its roads: When commerce thrived along Georgia’s lakeshore, so, too, did the highways. When the town languished and business moved to Burlington, many roads went out of use.
The pair’s mapping project was a feat in itself, but it also unearthed stories of a sleepy town witness to momentous history.
Now the town is at a turning point.
To retain a right of way, the selectboard must reclassify unidentified corridors as town highways or legal trails by Feb. 10, 2015, the deadline for filing the highway map locally before submitting it to the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
If an ancient road is accepted and reclassified, it remains a town road until formally, legally discontinued. If the town takes no action, all of the ancient roads will quietly fade away.
“You would never have the right to use that property again without buying the rights,” Burke said.
According to an article by Montpelier lawyer and historian Paul Gillies, Vermont towns have added over 166 miles of class 4 highways and 251 miles of legal trails to their official maps since 2006.
“These are public assets; they belong to all of us,” Burke said, allowing that landowners who find an ancient road runs through their living room might not share the same sentiment.
“They don’t want somebody driving through their yard, and that’s a legitimate fear,” he said, adding that accepting the ancient roads does not reopen them to traffic. “It doesn’t mean you have to bulldoze someone’s house for a right-of-way from 200 years ago.”
The selectboard can specify ancient roads’ purpose and who can use them, creating possibilities for recreational trails, partial roads or walking paths open only to abutting landowners. The roads can also be retained as “paper roads,” printed on the town map but inaccessible to the public, retaining the ROW in case townspeople change their minds someday.
“Fifty years from now, who knows,” Burke said.
Burke, who noted one of his findings runs right through his Georgia Plains neighborhood, said some ancient roads around the Deer Brook and Russell Greene Natural Area could be turned into public recreational trails.
“Some people want [the ancient roads] buried and left alone,” Burke said. “Other people … would perk up and say, ‘Wow, that looks like a real asset.’”
Whether Georgians think ancient roads are exciting possibilities for future development or encroachments on private property, Burke and Heinlein want them to make the call.
“If the townspeople feel like the roads should just disappear, and we should let them go, that would be fine,” Burke said. “But my feeling is, there are some on here that I would like to see at least on paper.”
Burke and Heinlein presented their research two weeks ago at a well-attended Georgia Historical Society event at the Georgia Public Library. Pleased with the crowd’s thoughtful questions and seeming interest, they are hopeful residents will express their wishes to the selectboard, preferably at a public meeting.
Selectmen Paul Jansen and Matt Crawford sit on the joint ancient roads committee with the planning commission, and will discuss Burke and Heinlein’s findings and make a decision how to proceed. Town Administrator Michael McCarthy said a meeting was not yet set at press time.